Ask the County Law Librarian – Since When Is Mayhem Funny?
I love the Allstate commercials where there’s a guy called “Mayhem” and he creates lots of problems for people. Obviously, the commercial is trying to get people to buy insurance by saying mayhem is everywhere, watch out for mayhem, and protect yourself from mayhem. I’ve also heard murder and mayhem mentioned together in movies, but what exactly is mayhem? And since when is mayhem funny??
Thanks for your question Drew. Those Allstate commercials are pretty clever and always leave me with a smile. There are a couple of different ways to answer your question. People often have varying ideas of what mayhem actually means; first we can look at the basic definition and the one that I think the commercial may be alluding to.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers a definition of mayhem as “needless or willful damage or violence”. This seems to fit the variety of situations that are often seen in the commercials. Typically, there are events or scenarios, mostly from negligence, that cause problems to insurers such as tree limbs falling or other damages. These events seem rather trivial in nature in comparison to the primary legal definition.
If you are in law enforcement or other legal professions, “mayhem” has a completely different meaning, and is often associated with torture! Mayhem is legally defined in the California Penal Code sections 203-206 and states “every person who unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body, or disables, disfigures, or renders it useless, or cuts or disables the tongue, or puts out an eye, or slits the nose, ear, or lip, is guilty of mayhem”. Mayhem is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or eight years. People v. Ausbie, discusses that it is the nature of the injury, and not the degree of force that distinguishes mayhem from other related offenses such as assault and battery.
After reading the legal definition, I agree “mayhem” is certainly not something to be laughed at, but you have to admit, the advertisers have done their job, since people are not only remembering the commercials, but they are actively being discussed by consumers.
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